Halfway through an eight-miler, our feet crunching the gravel roads, my running partner pointed out that although a mile out of town, we could still see our church’s steeple. “I like to see how far away I can get and still catch a glimpse of it poking out above the trees,” she continued. St. Pauls’ Germanic steeple towers above almost everything else in town, gently giving dimension to the skyline. It’s a good thing Victoria is a distance runner, because we have to get pretty far away from town to no longer turn and witness its beauty.
Many, many years ago, according to Business Insider, runners “would often race each other from one town’s church steeple to the next. The steeples were chosen because they were easy to see from long distances…The countryside would also require runners to jump over various barriers over the course of their race. These included stone walls and small rivers.”
Modern track and field competitions modernized this race by using hurdles to simulate the walls and a water pit for the creeks and rivers, naming it “Steeplechase.”
Although I never competed in track and field, I often engage in my own steeple game. Running through life, I get stuck in a path of self-pity or selfish pursuit. How long can I pound down this pavement of self-pity and selfish ambition while still peeking back and seeing the steeple? I can always stop and run back, I tell myself, I’m not that far gone yet…my self-righteousness must not be too bad if the steeple is still in view behind me.
Yesterday I read Psalm 25. A beautiful prayer, which I encourage you to digest in entirety, but I want to highlight a few sections specifically.
David pleads in verse four, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your path” and then in verse ten recognizes, “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.” In contrast to my own selfish plans, God’s ways are full of love and commitment.
But praise be to God we are not left alone to right our footsteps: “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.” We are promised that our sins are already forgiven through Christ’s work on the cross, and we are given the Holy Spirit as a helper when we are caught in the path of self-centeredness. What a gift!
If you run through Concordia, be sure to look for the steeple and remember the steadfast promise waiting for you in love.
I am excited to introduce Nancy Gowen to the campfire community. My (Molly’s) writing teacher, mentor, and mom! Thank you for sharing your gift of words with us today and welcome the the Campfire.
The silence was deafening. All that deep quiet, intending to give a sense of peace and tranquility, nearly exploded in my head and made sleep elusive. The mountain was dark and the cabin completely void of noise, but I was not calmed by it. I finally got out of bed and put in my earbuds to listen to a podcast to drown the quiet.
A combination of life events evidently caused tinnitus, a constant whoosh of noise in my left ear. I’ve had it for years and it is hardly perceptible until I listen for it, or I am in a noticeably quiet place. Being in that much quiet was painful.
Thinking back on that situation makes me wonder about the noise we “hear.” Is it background noise or is it disruptive? What is that hum, barely noticed in the milieu of life? Are we tuned in to the noise of the daily or have we learned to ignore it? I remember the long-long-short-long whistle of the trains behind my childhood home, the constant buzz of cicadas in summer while living in a farming community, military aircraft practicing over the house and whining sirens from first responders coming into and leaving the hospital across the street. Have you had similar sound experiences that you have become accustomed to?
The ear doctor told me that I had better hearing than most of his patients, which seems kind of paradoxical. With constant distraction, do I really hear that well? Apparently, the noise is superficial, or perhaps my brain has accommodated for it. Rather than lament its annoyance, what can I learn from this noise?
Elijah heard sounds that seemed to carry God’s signature, but it was the still small voice that spoke His word. Here is Elijah, waiting on God to speak, and God used a quiet noise to get his attention. (I Kings 19:11-13)
Jonah had to be swallowed to hear God’s voice. Noah and Abraham waited years to hear the plan. Jeremiah couldn’t hear God for all of his complaining.
Henri Nouwen wrote many books about prayer and in most of his books, he connects prayer with quiet listening. He suggested that in order to really hear God, a closet was a good place to start (and this was 25 years before War Room was published!). Nouwen writes, “the real ‘work’ of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice…” (Life of the Beloved) He also understood that we are easily distracted people. Have you ever prayed the Lord’s Prayer all the way through without losing concentration? To stay focused, Nouwen recommended repeating a short Bible passage repeatedly, perhaps 2-5 words long. With practice, we learn to hear what God is saying. I want my whooshing ear to be the silencer of other background noise, or maybe to hear that background better. Maybe that’s the Voice. Maybe I just need to talk less and listen more. Maybe it is time to find a good closet.
For the last year and a half, I have been pursuing an MFA degree in fiction writing. For as long as I can remember, I have loved stories—immersive settings, evocative prose, interesting characters in strange situations. But for how much I adore good literature, I’ve always been a little intimidated by poetry.
I don’t think I’m alone. In my experience, most people avoid reading poetry these days, either because they find it difficult to understand, too esoteric, and/or just plain boring.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if many of us struggle to read Scripture for the same reasons we struggle to read poetry. After all, around one third of the Bible is poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Revelation), and much of the rest of Scripture relies heavily on poetic language—metaphor, allusion, symbolism, imagery, etc. For those of us who have a hard time with poetry, it isn’t any wonder that Scripture can sometimes feel a bit inaccessible, too.
This spring I decided to challenge myself as a writer and reader by enrolling in a poetry class. I’ve learned a ton from my classmates and professor about how to actually enjoy engaging with poetry, and I’ve started to use some of those same strategies when engaging with Scripture. Approaching Scripture with an eye for the poetic has made reading the Bible more pleasurable for me and has helped me feel closer to the Lord—after all, as the format of the Bible makes clear, God speaks to us through poetry!
So, I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned with you in hopes that it will help you, too, refresh your approach to Scripture and hear God speak.
1. Read slowly and more than once. Poetry is not meant to be guzzled like those best-selling paperback novels we see in airport bookshops. Poetry, like a fine wine, is meant to be savored. While I do think it’s admirable to read as much Scripture as possible in a single sitting, I have found it most beneficial to read small portions of Scripture at a time—perhaps just a handful of verses. This allows me space to meditate on the language, and to really consider what the text is saying. When it comes to good poetry, including Scripture, new meanings often emerge upon reading the text for a second, third, or fourth time that may not have been apparent on that first read.
2.Read with a pen in your hand. We live in a culture that favors passive consumption, but poetry and Scripture resist passivity. In fact, poetry and Scripture demand active engagement. One of the best ways to engage with any text is to annotate, annotate, annotate. Underline words and phrases that stand out to you, jot down questions and gut reactions, make note of connections you see between the text and other texts, or between the text and your life. Annotating your Bible, or taking notes in a notebook, puts you in direct dialogue with God’s Word and helps you avoid the temptation to consume Scripture passively.
3. Look up words or allusions you don’t understand. Maybe this seems obvious, but I think it’s worth emphasizing: Often, the key to unlocking an entire poem is simply looking up a term or reference that I don’t fully understand. This has proved true for me when reading the Bible, as well. Scripture is particularly complicated when you take into account the historical contexts in which the text was written (much of which is foreign to our postmodern sensibilities) and the fact that the Bible is translated from ancient languages. Taking a few minutes to look at alternative translations, look up difficult words, or Google historical information has made scripture feel much more accessible.
4. Find pleasure in the language. Even when a poem feels difficult to decipher, we can still enjoy it simply for the beauty of its language. The Bible is full of exquisite language, too.Take this portion of Psalm 104 for example:
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.
He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
Without trying to understand what the Psalm means, let the imagery sink in: garments made of light, chariots made of clouds, mountains fleeing at the thundering sound of God’s voice. The images alone, even apart from the context of the verse, are like paintings in the mind. To describe God is beyond our ability as humans, but the Psalmist uses poetic language—metaphor, simile, and symbolism—to get as close as possible.
5. Find rest in ambiguity. I think one reason we often resist poetry is because we feel like poems are trying to trick us—like each poem has a single meaning, and it’s our job as readers to work through the language to decipher that meaning. But poems are not riddles. They are not locked containers designed for hiding ideas. Good poetry is often ambiguous because, well, life is ambiguous, and poetry is meant to reflect life. In an article for poets.org, Edward Hirsch puts it this way:
Too often we resist ambiguity. Perhaps our lives are changing so fast that we long for stability somewhere, and because most of the reading we do is for instruction or information, we prefer it without shades of gray. We want it to be predictable and easy to digest. And so difficult poetry is the ultimate torment … [To appreciate poetry], We have to cultivate a new mindset, a new practice of enjoying the inconclusive.
I tend to resist ambiguity when I read Scripture, too. I like easy answers, simple explanations. However, much of Scripture—like all great poetry—is paradoxical and mysterious, and it’s okay to rest in that. I like to think of it this way: If everything about God was always easy for us mere humans to understand, what would make him God and us human? Let us bask in the wonderment of God’s mysteries. Let us appreciate that God is God and we are human—some of him is simply beyond our comprehension. Let us find rest in that knowledge and praise him all the more for it!